Cherish One Family | Address to 40th Anniversary Gathering on 18th October 2012
I am sad not to be with you in person tonight, but glad that Karen has agreed to read for me.
I have always been proud to have been one of the “small group of women” who gathered in the Kimmage Road in 1972. My image of that small group is always of us huddling together as if for warmth. If we did huddle, I’m sure it was not for too long. But the coming together was for all of us grabbing at lifelines.
I had spent my pregnancy hiding, going to work in the most ridiculous outfits in an effort to hide my condition, which in fact I did very successfully, and worried to such a degree that about six weeks before my child was due to be born I got shingles and so my doctor had a good reason at last to sign me off work.
What was I worried about. Them Out There – the people who somehow could take my baby away from me. After all the fact that I was determined to keep my child meant that I was inadequate, at least that was what I was told on my first foray into looking for help. Shame was the other big thing. Where did all of this come from? It is fascinating about what is not said in families. Ever since I could remember there was a knowing that something could happen to girls, it was never specified but totally tangible and whatever it was that could happen would undoubtedly be their own fault. This together with my mother’s eternal sigh that I “would come to a bad end” crystallised when I found myself pregnant, with no husband and not even a man who was prepared to hang around. Oh the shame, but of course I had fulfilled the prophesy.
As it happened when I got pregnant both my parents were dead, but there was a big extended family, who were more than supportive when they were all told. But that was after the event. Before my daughter’s birth, I struggled with all kinds of conflicting emotions and my thinking was all over the place. Even though a reality check might have assured me that I was doing pretty well; had bought a mobile home (no problems thanks to a prolonged bank strike), had a pretty good job, my own car etc, the struggle really was ongoing about the best thing to do for my child. All of my instinct and observation of the world around me told me my child needed to be with me. But the weight and pressure of the perceived wisdom was so great that there was no way I could make the decision unequivocally. But make the decision I did and it was probably eight months after Carol was born that I met my first real life other unmarried mother.
Nothing ever happens in a vacuum and neither did the emergence of CHERISH. Catriona will have set the scene on how things were for the twenty years or so before the organisation emerged and I’m sure she will have talked about Eileen Proctor and the widows; about AIM and the deserted wives; about Womens’ Liberation, who by the way around that time produced a newsletter in which they talked about “a central organisation which will help and REHABILITATE the unmarried mother”. We didn’t want rehabilitation, we wanted acceptance for ourselves and our children. Nevertheless “The Shadow Women” were stirring in Ireland and it was only a matter of time until us lot did the same.
All of the above is well documented in Single Issue the book which I wrote about the set up of Cherish, which I had to read again to remind myself about how things were way back then. Quite frankly even I find it hard to believe.
By the time it got to the point where I knew at least three other unmarried women who were keeping their children, I had bought a little house on the Kimmage Road and it was there that the embryonic organisation began to take form. At first in 1972 we just met to give each other support, to hear each other’s stories, and probably most importantly to know we were not alone.
We decided to put a small ad in the Irish Press with a phone number saying unmarried mothers were meeting. And the floodgates opened. Unmarried women with children started to emerge from the Shadows where lots of them had lurked for years, rearing their children as best they could, some with family support, some totally alone.
We might have continued in this way for a long time, except that in February 1973 Jack Lynch dissolved the Dail and called an election. It was like a call to arms, we were galvanised into action. There were discussions of course, should we ‘go public’ should we not remain a support group? I guess it became inevitable that we had to emerge, what we wanted above all was acceptance and that could only happen by bringing about huge change in Ireland at every level.
An agenda for a meeting on March 14 1973 makes my head spin. On the care side there were lists of ’girls’ (note not ’women’) in need of everything from a cot to a flat, to clothes for the baby. New members to be contacted. Then there was the campaigning side. Reports for Ministers; publicity contact from RTÉ 7 Days; interviews with Womens’ Way and Womens’ Choice and Embassies – Swedish Embasy Collette O’Neill, Danish Embassy Annette, a report on AIM Margaret Murphy. I don’t even remember what all the Embassies was about, but presumably spreading the word and getting support from every possible source. You can imagine we had by now a very effective committee at work. Annette, Collette, Margaret Murphy, Mary Callan, and Irene Blanchfield I guess were the main movers and shakers.
But the first priority was an allowance, we had to get a statutory allowance for unmarried mothers and their children. We were convinced Fianna Fail would not be returned to Government (not rocket science to predict at the time) and concentrated on Fine Gael and Labour. We put a lot of work into making contact with potential Ministers and on 16 May 1973 we got our first unmarried mother’s allowance of £8.15 We had arrived. I have to say the excitement was intense.
Now the pressure was really on, we needed to change the law in relation to adoption.
Length of time which mothers had to make a decision; access to information after adoption, We were totally against the idea of unmarried mothers having to adopt their own babies as a way of giving them legal protection and above all we wanted to end the concept of illegitimacy; we wanted fathers to accept responsibility and we wanted adoption to be made available to all children, not just the children of unmarried mothers.
Because of our need to change the law, we set our sights on Mary Robinson, a young professor of law at Trinity College, who had just been re elected to the Senate. Her first reaction on being approached was “but I am too young to be president of anything” But she accepted the offer on the condition that we became incorporated a task which we had already nearly completed. Over the years until she became President of Ireland she and William Duncan another Trinity Lawyer, steered CHERISH unerringly through the maze of laws which needed to be changed..
By the end of 1973 we had got our first allowance, become incorporated, got Mary Robinson for President, got a group of directors, and patrons, several of them bishops, produced our first newsletter and had a first great Santa party for the children organised by VSI. All kinds of other aspirations were in the famous minutes, most importantly, very simply stated “Buy a House”
That CHERISH, now One Family continued for forty years is thanks totally to the mostly incredible women (and men) who have kept it going, none more so than the present Board of Directors and staff. In a way it was easy for us, we were forging ahead for our children and once we had emerged from the Shadows we got an awful lot of support from every direction. Another thing which I believe has helped One Family to survive is having a house. Like a family, an organisation needs a safe base from which to operate and I think 2 Lower Pembroke Street has provided that.
In Single Issue I tried to thank and acknowledge everyone who created and enabled this organisation to flourish and of course inevitably people will have been left out. But there is one person whose input to CHERISH has not I think really ever been properly acknowledged. She of course is Nuala Feric and really only she knows how she survived. Thanks, Nuala, and I apologise for all the times I made your life more difficult. But we had great times didn’t we?
I am hoping that it doesn’t take another forty years of struggle in Ireland to eliminate the kinds of difficulties which single parents still experience; I hope that the Constitution will be changed to reflect the diverse makeup of the modern family and I hope that as long as the need is there that One Family will be there to help meet that need.
Slán agus beannacht,